Throughout the day of December 30, 1998, there seemed to be only one topic of conversation aboard Westward. Roughly a quarter of the crew had scientific and analytical positions, and they were busily occupied sifting through data from the ship’s cameras and spectrometers. The rest of the crew—technical, medical or administrative—spent the day finding excuses to stop at windows for a closer look at the planet below while exchanging whispered rumors and speculations about what the scientists had found.
“It would be foolish to jump to any conclusions before the sensor analysis is complete,” Said Rico Estevez professionally when Lamont asked for his impressions later that morning. He took another forkful of his breakfast, which had been made to at least look like scrambled eggs, while gazing at the planet through the large observation window at the front of the cafeteria. “But I am told that there are dinosaurs.”
“You want me to believe that the Martians would find a perfectly habitable planet millions of years ago and then just go home to their cave world?” Asked junior technician John Orwell rhetorically as he took his time checking connections in an electrical access panel situated close to a porthole. “Mark my words, they’re watching us now, and I’ll bet they’re none too happy to be intruded upon.”
“They could have devolved,” Suggested Susan Ames as she polished the already spotless glass of the long window that stretched the better part of the ship’s crew deck. Susan was one of fifty colonists onboard, waiting to be transplanted on the first suitable planet Westward discovered, to plant humanity’s first interstellar settlement. Susan was married but contracted against having children while onboard, and like all colonists without other obligations, she was given nonessential duties aboard the ship to keep her occupied. “50 million years is a long time, even for Martians. Maybe their brains shrunk and they turned back into monkeys.”
“Martian monkeys?” Scoffed Doctor Milo Faust as he wrapped gauze around the blistered hand of a cook who had scalded himself with boiling water in a moment of distraction. “Who told you that nonsense? Evolution doesn’t work that way, and neither do Martians.”
Faust was the oldest person aboard Westward, and his knobby hands worked with gruff, practiced precision. The cook was seated on one of four medical beds arranged in a semicircle in the main area of the ship’s infirmary. Lamont had been nearby when the accident had happened, and had accompanied him to see the doctor. When the elderly physician had finished his work, he looked the crew member in the eye with the gravest expression his gnomish features could muster. “We’re in space, Dennis; don’t forget that. There’s no room for negligence.”
Dennis looked down sheepishly, as practically anyone would when being chastised by a man more than twice his age. “Yessir.”
Point made, the doctor’s eyes brightened. He patted Dennis on the back and added. “I want you to rest that for a day and come see me before you resume work. I’ve given you something to help you sleep, so Rosemary will make sure you get to your quarters without further incident.”
Rosemary, having taken care of the syringe the doctor had handed her moments before, now draped the cook’s discarded uniform jacket over one arm and offered him the other to help him from the bed. “Come on, then,” She said in her Northern English accent, which Lamont always found comfortingly familiar.
“You know a lot about Martians?” Lamont asked the doctor.
“Ms. Wells here knows everything that can be known about Martian biology, and I taught her everything she knows,” Faust replied, straightening the collar of his jumpsuit.
“But the greatest lesson will always be humility,” Rosemary grinned before the automatic doors of the infirmary slid closed, leaving Lamont and the doctor alone.
“Naturally,” Faust smiled impishly to no one in particular.
Lamont stifled a yawn and leaned against the end of a medical bed. “What do you think?” He asked the doctor. “Is it likely that Martians would have colonized a planet like this after having charted it?”
“Possible, perhaps, but not likely. As I understand it, the exploratory phase of Martian culture was an anomaly; they aren’t restless by nature.” Milo scrutinized the ruffled, unshaven newspaperman. “How have you been sleeping, Lamont?”
“Horizontally,” Lamont evaded. “It’s an old habit I picked up in the field. Have any results from the analysis come through to your department so far?”
“We’re tied in to the sensor array,” Faust said, nodding toward the computer bank on the other side of the room. “But I haven’t stopped to examine it closely. Procedure dictates a senior staff meeting to go over the results by shift’s end.”
Lamont checked his wristwatch. “That’s in twenty minutes,” He observed.
“I’m sure you’ll have plenty of answers then,” Faust nodded. He had wandered over to the counter and was looking through one of the cabinets.
“How long could Martians live?” Lamont asked.
“According to their records, some Martians had lifespans in the thousands of years. Perhaps even tens of thousands,” the doctor replied, pulling a glass bottle out of the cabinet. “I’m not sure that there was a biological limit at the height of their science.”
Lamont whistled. “With lifespans like that, they would need to colonize other worlds, wouldn’t they? Overpopulation would be inevitable.”
The doctor shook his head. “That never appeared to be a problem for Martians. By the time their planet lost its atmosphere, they had long since stopped any natural kind of breeding. Their records suggest that birth was a socialized and mechanized process.”
Just then, the intercom panel near the infirmary door chimed.
“Get that, will you?” Faust asked.
Lamont crossed the room and toggled the communication unit. “Infirmary,” He answered.
“Is that Townsend?” Lamont recognized Bishop’s smooth voice.
“Yeah,” Lamont acknowledged. “The doctor’s occupied.”
“Please tell him that there will be a meeting of the department heads on the command deck at 17:00.”
“We’ll be there,” Lamont replied, switching off the com.
“You see?” Faust smiled. “Procedure.”
He walked over to Lamont and handed him a small sample glass of clear liquid. “Take this,” he ordered.
Lamont grimaced. “Some kind of vitamin supplement?”
The doctor narrowed his heavy white eyebrows. “Schnapps,” he replied, lifting his own glass. “You’re over-caffeinated.”
Lamont chuckled, tipping the glass to the doctor, who was swiftly downing his own drink. “Don’t let the crew know you have this. Tomorrow is New Year’s Eve.”
“That,” Faust replied, clearing his throat, “Is the least of our troubles.”